The Construction of Criticism

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

We all struggle to process constructive criticism. Particularly when the feedback is harsh or if it concerns an area of your life which you are passionate about.

But if you are going to fall apart whenever a teacher or director criticises you, you shouldn’t bother becoming a performer. The one constant factor in an incredibly unstable field, is that you will never stop receiving negative feedback and/ or rejection. The steel rod in the spine of a truly successful performer is the ability to absorb feedback, and bounce back from particularly harsh responses from teachers and critics.

I have come across some suggestions from teachers and music students on how to become more resilient in the face of critique. I thought it would be worthwhile to list the approaches I have found helpful.

Find mentors whose opinions you respect

It’s impossible to please everyone at once. But if you find a mentor who shares your artistic outlook and who vibes well with your learning style, you can trust their opinions. This will help you separate the helpful pieces of advice, from the white noise of hundreds of clashing opinions.

Separating your artistic practice from your self-worth

Think of your artistic practice as something you can work towards improving, like your fitness level. It is not indicative of your worth as a human being, only of your progress in certain areas.

Try to think of ‘being musical’ or a being a ‘powerful performer’ as more like a set of skills you can always work towards improving, not some intrinsically magical ability that is central to your value as a person.

I found it hard to hear constructive criticism concerning my singing voice because I treasured being able to sing, and thought of my voice as a special quality that I possessed. Almost as if it was a precious trinket I kept safe in a jewellery box. What helped me move forward was de-mystifying my voice. I got so overwhelmed thinking about my artistic interpretation of songs, when I really just needed to start by drilling the notes and learning the words.

By making the process as logical and practical as possible, I was able detach my emotional ego (mostly!) and think of constructive criticism as pointers to help me best use my instrument. Depending on who gave me the advice, I would commit to following it, experiment with it, or ignore it.

You are not an inexhaustible robot, aka take time for yourself

The high achievers in my life would often mention in passing that they didn’t understand why they were so tired, or why they couldn’t simply keep practising/ studying for hours on end.

Take breaks and rest days when you need them. It really helps to learn the difference between truly immovable deadlines, and jobs/ projects which can wait a day or two.

If you feel particularly rattled, investigate what exactly is bothering you

Introspection can be pretty uncomfortable because it forces you to confront your weaknesses and insecurities. But it is so important. Persistent feelings of anxiety or fatigue are often symptoms of an underlying issue.

Maybe you need a break from music and are scared of what that might mean, or maybe you’re feeling frazzled because you haven’t been able to establish a steady routine of work and study. Try to work out exactly what’s bothering you. Take some time to talk to trusted friends or family members, or a psychologist.

Take the diligence and enthusiasm of your work ethic, and apply it to the idea of accepting the natural role of mistakes and setbacks

You’re dedicated to becoming the best performer you can be. So apply that same dedication to understanding that the creative process is messy. It doesn’t move in a straight line.

With time and experience, you will become more comfortable with the idea that setbacks will happen (and are almost guaranteed). As long as you respond to bumps along the road with a cool head and dose of logic, things will work out.

Appreciate the fact that your artistic taste and instincts may be more advanced than your current capabilities as a performer

It’s so frustrating- you have a list a mile long of pieces you want to perform. But you know you’re not ready for them yet. Or you know that you’re capable of learning the pieces, but only capable of interpreting them at the most rough, rudimentary level. This is particularly true for young classical singers, who have to wait for their hardware development to catch up with their software development.

Constantly delaying gratification as a performer is tough. You have to learn to walk before you can run, but it’s only fair to want reminders of why you’re bothering to learn these skills at all. All I can say is, listen to your favourite music, listen to your dream roles, experiment performing and learning different kinds of music purely for fun. Remember why you enjoy music at all, and then you’ll be able to work out whether you can make the sacrifices required to perform music at an elite level.

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